Each Thursday, I gather with international students who are learning English and converse with them. Our topics range from politics to our upcoming weekend plans. Recently, we discussed the values of our home countries. The words “independence,” “freedom,” “individualism,” and “hard work” immediately flooded my American mind. The students from China shared that community and social interdependence were characteristic values of their country, and to my surprise, a student from Kuwait contributed that hospitality is the most important value of his country.
One of the Chinese students asked him, “What is the meaning of this word, hospitality?” His reply was simple, “To take care of your visitors and guests, and give them whatever they need to be comfortable.” He shared that a poor man would go so far as to sell his own child to care for his guest. (Please note this is an extreme notion for me! What struck me most about this statement is the earnest desire to care for a guest.)
This description of hospitality, and the fact that it was the singular value that came to the student’s mind, challenge my American independence. I live in a country where the experience of loneliness and longing for friendship are common. At the very most inner parts of ourselves, God designed us for community and intimacy, yet we feel the pangs of feeling unknown, unimportant, or cast aside despite nearly always being surrounded by people.
Hospitality in the Bible
God’s Word clearly teaches us about hospitality. Beginning in Genesis 18:1-8, the Lord appears to Abraham in the heat of the day, and Abraham welcomes three strangers into his home. He serves these strangers by washing their grimy feet, feeding them a luxurious meal of milk, curds and a calf, and giving them rest. Beyond Genesis, the Pentateuch is filled with commandments for the Israelites to do well towards the sojourners (strangers) in their midst—to leave grain in the fields (Lev. 23:22), grapes in the vineyard (Lev. 19:10), or olives in the trees (Deut. 24:20) after the harvest for the sojourner’s benefit, to love and not oppress strangers because the Israelites once were strangers in Egypt (Ex. 22:21, Ex. 23:9, Deut. 10:19), to treat the sojourner equitably under the law (Lev. 24:22, Deut. 27:19), and many more. From these directives, it is clear that the stranger was to be welcomed into the community of Israel, to be cared for, fed, and treated fairly.
Throughout the New Testament, Paul teaches us that our hospitality is a mark of being a Christian. In Romans 12:13, he commands us to, “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” In Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3, he ranks hospitality with the qualities of holiness, self-control and discipline for any man who seeks the position of elder or overseer. In 1 Peter 4:9, Christians are directed to, “show hospitality to one another without grumbling.”
Hospitality as a Christian Virtue
Hospitality is important. It demonstrates a care and concern for others, a generosity of spirit that gives freely and places the needs of others above your own. It is an exceedingly practical way to show love towards your neighbor. When I think of hospitality, I think first of extending the grace and warmth of hospitality to my friends and those that I dearly know. Yet, when considering the nature of hospitality shared by the Kuwaiti student, I realize that my view and direction of hospitality is far too narrow.
The original Greek word used for “hospitality” (philoxenia) in the passages referenced above literally means, “love for strangers.” Hospitality, by its nature, is directed towards strangers—those who are different, those who I do not know deeply and intimately, those who I do not (yet) call a friend. Paul was exhorting the virtue of hospitality to the early church because boundaries of religion and ethnicity were felt strongly. As the early church stumbled through the application of the Mosaic law to their new identities as Christians and the inclusion of Gentiles as family, the temptation to exclude others from Christian community would have been strong. Yet, Paul calls early Christians to hospitality, to love for people who are different.
Surrounding myself with good friends and family and relishing in the intimacy I experience in familiar faces gathered around a table is comforting to me. Yet, as a Christian, I am called to live selflessly, and at times, I must set aside my comfort to seek the good of a fellow human. Ephesians 2 reminds me that I was once a stranger and alien, but God has welcomed me into His family and made me a fellow citizen. Hospitality is symbolic of the unity that we, as the body of Christ, experience in Christ and a practical expression that reminds us that we live for a purpose beyond our comfort.
Small Starts: The Practice of Hospitality
Our life stage (married, single, married with small kids, etc.) does not preclude us from being hospitable towards others. It can be simply shown by reaching out to meet someone new at church, regardless of how uncomfortable a simple “hello” might feel. Hospitality can be demonstrated in inviting folks into our homes for a meal. It can be shown in taking the initiative to invite someone who recently moved to your city to coffee or out for a meal or shown in intentionally meeting the unique needs of international students, refugees, or those working in America from around the globe.
Perhaps one of the ways we, as the church, combat loneliness and independence in American society is through the intentional practice of hospitality, the extension of warmth and love towards those different than us, those we do not deeply know, and those who are not a part of our normal communities. In practicing hospitality, we live out the Gospel, welcoming others into our homes and lives, as Christ has welcomed us.
Next month, Of Larks will continue this series on hospitality as we consider how hospitality reflects the Gospel and our adoption into Christ’s family.